If you live in Japan, surely you’ve seen it before. It’s a symbol that looks like the capital letter T but with an additional horizontal line above it: 〒. Known as the postal mark (yubin kigo), it’s a symbol that represents the Japanese postal system. Despite a decline in physical letters sent, the postal system is still very much a part of life in Japan as it also offers banking and other financial services (an odd notion in itself as most Americans would never consider banking with USPS) and the 〒 appears on post boxes, delivery trucks and branch offices.
The story of how the 〒 came to be dates back to 1871 when the Japan Post began operating as an organization. From the onset, a logo didn’t exist and, instead, they were simply represented by the characters 郵便 (yubin, or post). But around 1877, a red circle with a bold line though it began being used. It was adopted as the official postal mark in 1884 by administrative order from the Grand Council of state.
In 1885, the now-defunct Ministry of Communications and Transportation (teishinshou 逓信省) is formed, and they take over all postal matters. It’s first minister was Enomoto Takeaki, a samurai and admiral who had fought against the new Meiji government, lost and imprisoned, but later pardoned.
But just 3 years after the first mark was made official, a new symbol was announced. On February 8, 1887, it was announced that T would be the new logo. Then, days later on February 14th a new announcement was made that 〒 was the official symbol. Several days after that an explanation was given, citing that T was published by mistake and it should have been 〒.
It’s unclear what led to this series of mishaps but to summarize the various theories, the original T was likely taken from the first letter of the ministry’s name: Teishinshou. However, this was problematic for several reasons. It was too simple and, more importantly, the letter T was already a universally accepted postal code for insufficient postage. So the T needed to be changed. One theory that explains how T became 〒 is that the logo for shipping company NYK (Nippon Yusen Kaisha), founded in 1885, was 2 bold red lines. According to researchers of this Japanese trivia show, the symbol was interpreted as a pun: ni-hon means 2 lines, but can also mean Nihon, as in the country (NYK claims that the lines represent ambitions to traverse the planet, rather than a pun). And so the concept was co-opted by the ministry to create 〒, which stuck and has now been used for over 130 years.